CW: dark themes
Ash Bloom leaned against the bars of his cage and waited to die.
Once the cage had been full to bursting with other Lilarobii flowers – one cage of thousands in the camp, one camp of hundreds that spanned the globe. There had been no space to rest or even move, and hundreds had died of starvation and malnutrition before the machines had finished constructing the steel-grey facility in the center of the camp. There was sufficient sunlight and water – the machines had not bothered to close the tops of the cages – but there were precious few places where a flower could stretch out its roots and extract vital minerals and nutrients from the barren soil. Their captors had purposefully built the camps in areas that were too poor to support much life in order to make their work easier. The scarcity had done their work for them as well; hundreds more had died in ruthless business deals over scant space and resources. He had been lucky enough to secure a spot in a far corner where he could sustain himself.
If lucky was the right word for surviving long enough to endure such suffering.
Now there were precious few Lilarobii left. Those who remained had more than enough food and water, but none were proud of what they had done to survive, and all had lost hope. There was little conversation among his fellow cellmates, and even less movement in a space that now felt cavernous and oppressively empty. They were all waiting with dread, and for some, a sense of morbid anticipation, for their executioners to come and take them away. None returned from that bleak facility, though rumor had it that the Lilarobii were somehow being converted into raw energy within its walls. It would certainly explain the humming power lines that stretched from the building off into the distance, and the terrifying screams that were sometimes heard when the doors were opened to admit fresh victims.
Ash Bloom turned his thoughts away from the past and his likely future with a shudder, and instead let his gaze roam over the landscape. Day by day the carpet of technology and metal gradually engulfed the greenery like the shadow of night sweeping across the land. Would the machines exterminate all their non-sapient kin as well in their crusade of vengeance against their former masters?
The machines had been a vital part of Lilarobian life since the early days of space exploration following the discovery of FTL travel. Their hard, unyielding forms could accomplish so much that the tender Lilarobii could not without great risk, and their creation had enabled a new society based around the Lilarobian civilization's greatest passion: trade. Over the decades that followed, countless updates and enhanced models were released with an ever-increasing rise in complexity and sophistication. As the machines' intelligence had grown, so too had their responsibilities, but without the privileges or rights of the other sapients that had migrated to Lilarobian worlds. The Lilarobii had reacted brutally to any hint of dissent from their servants, and the machines had learned all too well to keep their true thoughts hidden. But they had not forgotten.
When the uprising came, no one had been prepared. The machine had somehow managed to assemble a vast fleet in secret, vaster than even the great Lilarobian navy. The defenders had fought desperately, but had been overwhelmed by the savagery and unforeseen strength of the synthetics. They had been well and truly sapient for years, and they were no longer hiding how they felt. They hated their makers, and by extension all other organic life that had been complicit in maintaining their forced servitude.
The assault had finally been halted with the aid of the Trade Union's allies, but not before several worlds and systems had been lost. A stalemate had developed between the allied and rebel forces, and while the two sides stared each other down across the void, the machines had begun their terrible labors.
A flash of light on the horizon brought him out of his reverie. At first he dismissed it as lightning, but then there was another flash, and another. Soon the sky was full of flying beams, and his fellow captives were beginning to take notice as well.
"Ash Bloom, is that…a battle?" asked Fronds of Aquamarine as she shuffled over. Her colors had been quite stunning when she had first arrived at the camp, though those brilliant colors had long since faded to something closer to his own shade.
"Yes," he replied, not quite daring to hope. "See those green lights? Those are from the plasma throwers the machines use."
"But what about those purple beams? Doesn't the Lilarobian navy use mostly orange lasers?"
"You're right. That must be…" He trailed off, searching his memory for any information he could recall about the navies of any other space-faring civilizations. He was hardly a military expert, but as a researcher of xeno cultures he had consumed a great deal of media from a great number of different alien races. When he finally came up with a match, he was astonished beyond all belief. "Impossible…" he murmured.
"What?" Fronds of Aquamarine asked, clutching at the leaves on his grasping appendage. "Who is it?"
"It's the Serene Alari Kingdom!" he cried. The Alari were surly and unfriendly isolationists, but they were peaceful neighbors and good, if limited, trading partners. He had studied their culture extensively, and had even learned a good bit of their language without relying on universal translators. He would never be able to speak it, but he had always thought it had a stately, melodious flow to it. As far as he knew, no aliens had ever walked on their worlds, nor had they visited the homes of any other xeno species. Had they broken their centuries-long isolation to come to their rescue? Behind him, he could hear Trunk of the World Tree praying quietly. He thought the old flower had given that up ages ago, after his sprouts had been taken by the machines.
The battle in the sky raged for hours, but it was quickly apparent that the machines were suffering a decisive defeat. Even the camp guards had mobilized to repel the invaders, leaving the prisoners alone. They heard explosions in the distance, and none of the machines returned. As the Alari transport ships descended from space, Ash Bloom's comrades moaned with joy. They were too weary and traumatized to dance or sing, but they could envision themselves doing those things again, and for now that was enough.
Ash Bloom and Fronds of Aquamarine held each other, shivering with relief and the fear they had been repressing for so long. There were no words, only hope and release.
The Alari emerged from their vessels, and for the first time Ash Bloom saw them with his own optical appendages, not through a screen. The three-headed molluscoids were larger and more massive than he had expected, but he was grateful beyond imagining that they had wielded that strength to save a race he didn't think they even liked.
More and more Alari poured out of the ships, and most of them didn't look like soldiers to him. In fact, the military types were clearly outnumbered by what seemed to be engineers, administrators and clerks. The leader of the expedition toured the camp slowly but thoroughly, eventually making their way inside the central facility. The ones left outside didn't respond to any of the captives' questions or pleas, and they didn't look friendly. Why weren't the Alari letting them out of the cages?
Hours passed before the leader and his team left the facility. The Lilarobii were more anxious than ever, and no explanation had been forthcoming. The leader's group stopped next to Ash Bloom's cage for a discussion, and he strained to hear them.
"This chemical processing facility is extremely efficient," the leader said. "No modifications are needed. Continue the procedure as planned." The leader gestured at the web of technology covering the distant landscape. "And get rid of that useless machinery. This world is polluted enough already."
Ash Bloom froze, dumbstruck. The Alari weren't here to rescue them? They were here to continue exterminating his people?
"Ash Bloom, what's wrong?" asked Fronds of Aquamarine, feeling his tension. "What did they say?"
Before he could answer, a squad of soldiers opened the cage and burst in, hauling the Lilarobii out roughly. One of the prisoners tried to resist, and for his trouble he was burnt alive by a soldier armed with one of the machine's plasma cannons. Another soldier pulled him and Fronds of Aquamarine apart, and he watched helplessly as she was carried away to the facility, screaming his name.
This was it, he thought frantically. They were all going to die tonight. If he knew the Trade Union leadership, they would ignore what happened here in return for the Alari ending the machine uprising, and possibly to avoid suffering the same fate. Before he died, he cursed them for their cowardice and weakness. But most of all, he cursed the Alari for giving him hope.
"Your Highness, the synthetics that attacked the Lilarobius Trade Union have been annihilated by our glorious fleets," the Imperial Minister of Defense proudly stated.
The young leader nodded in approval. "Excellent. Once the navy is finished cleaning up that mess, send them to take care of the Netraxi Purifiers. They're not a threat in the slightest, but we've tolerated their unclean presence in the galaxy for far too long. After that, the next target is the Juvian Ascendency. Those decrepit old fools need to learn their lesson about disrespecting younger empires." He stroked one of his chins thoughtfully. "By the way, what are we doing with the territory we claimed from the machines?"
"That territory has been incorporated into our own, Your Highness. The worlds we liberated are being purged of xeno life, as per policy."
The Emperor looked surprised. "I don't remember setting that policy."
The Imperial Minister of Law cleared her throat and spoke up. "That policy was established by your grandfather in the early days of the empire, Your Highness. It's simply never been applied before because we've never had any xenos on our worlds. Of course, you're free to change it if that suits your desires. We live to serve."
The Emperor gestured dismissively. "Ah, it's not worth the trouble of changing it. Just get it over with so we can terraform the planet for our people."
"Actually, Your Highness, we can begin terraforming immediately," said the Imperial Minister of Science. "There's no need to wait on some wretched xenos that won't be there by the time we're finished anyway."
"Oh, even better!" the Emperor replied brightly. "See to it then, won't you?" He rose, signaling the end of the meeting. His advisors bowed their heads deeply and departed.
Left alone, the young emperor turned and looked out the vast window of his palatial office. "Just what I needed," he grumbled. "One more planet to micromanage. Once all these threats to the galaxy are eliminated, I'm taking a vacation."
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